Sunday, May 03, 2009

A break from the norm

This isn't really on-brief for a commuting blog, but commuting has been uneventful recently so I'm going to take the opportunity to get something off my chest that's bothered me for a few years. That something is Shakespeare, or to be more precise, one of his lesser-known plays, Hamlet.

(Incidentally, it might be speculated that Hamlet was in fact a commuter, travelling regularly between Elsinore and his hairy-arsed student digs in Wittenberg, where he and his mate Horatio smoked dope and compared the size of each other's philosophy. His favoured mode of transport for these trips is not made clear, although the train hadn't been invented).

Coming through a conventional education for priveleged young boys, I had the (mis)fotune to study Hamlet at various different stages. What this of course meant is that any pleasure I might otherwise have taken in it was suffocated by hours of tedious analysis, picking over every single detail and every line,and then repeating as if by rote every stock cliche the teachers could come up with in answer to the heavily-trailed exam questions. One of those questions concerned the character of Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, and the object of lust and jealousy for (arguably) three of the main characters. The question was, was Getrude a scheming, power-crazed, two-timing hussy, or simply a weak-willed, rather pathetic little woman at the mercy of outrageous fortune?

The answer, so we were told, was that she was definitely the former, as revealed in a scene midway through the play when the mask slips a little bit as she gets frustrated with the pompous old fool Polonius and tells him to come to the point with her sharp rebuke "More matter with less art." The way she then goes on the grass on her son for killing the self-same pompous old fool (or "Good old man" as she refers to him), having just before been expressing he devotion to him, is further evidence, supposedly, of this Machiavellian, look-after-number-one approach.

Now aged seventeen I didn't know much of life beyond the confines of my sheltered, mollycoddled existence, and I certainly didn't understand people. As I have got older and progressed through a career which so far has been largely unspectacular with occasional peaks and troughs, I have come to appreciate the truth of one of Shakespeare's other observations, about men and women being merely players. So surely Gertrude doesn't have to be either a rat or a mouse. Is it not plausible to suggest that she may in fact have been just human, subject to the visscitudes of life and buffeted by fotune to the point where the difference between right and wong became blurred. To be fair, her husband, the King, had just died, and quite apart from the grief, she was in danger of being out of a job. Let's assume that the after-dinner speaking circuit in Denmark was not well-developed, and it becomes clear that the opportunities for an ex-Queen to forge a new career look somewhat bleak. Faced with the prospect of losing her home, her job and her status, and presumably feeling somewhat vulnerable anyway as a result of being newly-widowed, jumping into bed with the new King must have seemed a sensible thing to do. That he just happened to be her brother-in-law was neither here nor there, because no matter what Hamlet might think, it isn't incest.

There is of course still the problem of whether she knew the identiy of the murderer or not, and indeed whether she and Claudius were up to anything they shouldn't have been before the King died. Were she to be revealed as not only an adulterer but also an accomplice to a murder, that would paint a very different picture. But I would argue that her conduct throughout is not suggestive of a woman whose calculating, cold nature enabled her to be so in control of events. Getting her son's hairy-arsed student mates to spy on him seems unneccessarily complicated for someone so ambitious. And frankly if she wanted to cling on to power and start a new dynasty with the new king, why keep Hamlet around anyway? Surely he was just an inconvenience? Given the level of antipathy between Claudius and Hamlet it seems unlikely that the king would be keen fo his stepson/son-in-law to succeed to the throne anyway,so it would make sense to just get Hamlet out of the way.

That bedroom scene, where Queen and Prince get intimate enough to have academics eveywhere rubbing themselves with undisguised relish, doesn't exactly portray Gertrude as the cold, calculating type. She's forgotten that her son is going into exile, for one thing, which isn't what you would expect of someone manipulating events to her advantage. And dobbing Hamlet in for killing Polonius, well, after everything else that had happened she was probably just a bit fed up of unstable men in her life, not to mention a bit upset at having witnessed a stabbing in her bedroom (well, who wouldn't be?), so it probably seemed like the right thing to do.

My point is that there are few people, even in Shakespeare, who don't change direction according to the prevailing wind. When emotions run high, rational behaviour is hard, so I have made my peace with Gertrude, and refuse to condemn her either way for being carried along by the force of momentous events.

1 Comments:

At 7:11 AM GMT+1 , Blogger DJ Kirkby said...

I've skimmed this, laughed lots and need to come back as not enough time right now to read it properly.

 

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